Book Review: Women Healers

Genre: Nonfiction | History
Stars: 3-1/2 out of 5

Synopsis from The StoryGraph: In her eighteenth-century medical recipe manuscript, the Philadelphia healer Elizabeth Coates Paschall asserted her ingenuity and authority with the bold strokes of her pen. Paschall developed an extensive healing practice, consulted medical texts, and conducted experiments based on personal observations. As British North America’s premier city of medicine and science, Philadelphia offered Paschall a nurturing environment enriched by diverse healing cultures and the Quaker values of gender equality and women’s education. She participated in transatlantic medical and scientific networks with her friend, Benjamin Franklin. Paschall was not unique, however. Women Healers recovers numerous women of European, African, and Native American descent who provided the bulk of health care in the greater Philadelphia area for centuries.

Drawing on extensive archival research, Brandt demonstrates that women healers were not inflexible traditional practitioners destined to fall victim to the onward march of Enlightenment science, capitalism, and medical professionalization. Instead, women of various classes and ethnicities found new sources of healing authority, engaged in the consumer medical marketplace, and resisted physicians’ attempts to marginalize them. Brandt reveals that women healers participated actively in medical and scientific knowledge production and the transition to market capitalism.

I was intrigued by the synopsis of this recently published title and requested an advance reader’s copy since it falls firmly within my spheres of interest – women’s/social history in the Colonial period and early Federalist period here in the United States. This nonfiction title is an extensively researched discussion on the unique interplay of forces at work in Pennsylvania (and surrounding regions/states along the mid-northeastern seaboard) of Enlightment philosophies on life, the Quaker/Friends support of women as equal learners to men (or at least women of a certain upper social class), the expansion of interactions with both Native Americans and the Africans who were slaves in the New World and the European colonials, and the expansion of trade and mercantilism as America moved from being colonies of England to an independent nation.

Drawing heavily on the few existing diaries and written records of these women healers, Brandt traces the development of the practice of medicine in Philadelphia and the eager quest for knowledge for new remedies to cure what ailed the colonists. While many of the women she discusses in the book are of an upper social class (and one of the reasons we know who they are as they had the education and income to write and keep “receipt books” of the remedies they used), there were doubtless countless other women who practiced medicine at either a household or neighborhood level. The interconnection of social duty to care for one’s family and one’s neighbors along with a belief among the Quakers of Pennsylvania that women could and should learn as men did meant that the practical knowledge these women attained was able to be shared through their diaries, letters, and the exchange of books.

I was a bit disappointed that more emphasis wasn’t given to the actual herbal remedies used. I have an interest in that, but this book is focused more on the social and economic aspects of women practicing medicine than in the specifics of their treatments (although there are some discussions of cures used in the time period). I felt like this was a VERY dense book. I found it a slow read, despite being interested in the subject matter and while it is obviously really well researched with a lot of historical data, and I think would be daunting for most except other scholars looking for background reading for similar research. I also felt like there wasn’t enough background information on the Quakers for the casual reader, and their very different approach to the status of women and the education of women might not make much sense to someone looking to understand why there was such a growth of women healers in the Philadelphia area.

Rating this was 3-1/2 out of 5 stars as I felt it was well-researched but a dry presentation unlikely to appeal to the vast majority of readers who might be interested in the topic.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: Women Healers

      1. That would have been wonderful if they had included that. Maybe there was nothing recorded about what was actually used.

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